A city man recalls the battle, and photo that made it famous
(Yesterday, Nov. 10, was the 204th anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. Gov. Milliken recognized that date with an executive declaration, citing the Marines' tradition of sacrifice and valor in battle. This is an Ann Arbor man's story of some of that sacrifice offered up more than 30 years ago.)
By William B. Treml
He remembers them all, and he grieves for them all.
They were all young then, young and full of the vigor and the strength and the courage of youth.
That they all were going into the depths of terror and death called car only vaguely troubled them.
Joe Rodriguez was one of them.
He was one of the fresh, young, vigorous United States Marines who two wars and more than three decades ago set out on the most costly invasion in the history of the corps.
He is middle-aged now, quiet, contemplative, saddened. Now a construction worker who lives at 2951 Kimberly, Rodriguez lived through the horror called Iwo Jima. He was present when what has been called the most famous battle photograph ever taken was made. He knew the six men who raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. He lived with them, ate with them, talked with them. He almost died with them.
RECENTLY, memories of that epic battle on Iwo came pounding back to Joe Rodriguez. They were jolted free by a five-paragraph Associated Press story which appeared in the Ann Arbor News.
The story told of the death in Manchester, N.H., of a janitor. Rene Arthur Gagnon, sometime-mill hand, part-time caretaker, collapsed and died while making the rounds in a Manchester apartment complex. Gagnon was 55, divorced, ailing, still battling the alcoholism which had years before cost him his home, his job, his dignity.
Gagnon was tall, good-looking. His remarkable resemblance to the movie actor, Tyrone Power, and Rodriguez’s look-alike characteristics to the actor Anthony Quinn, did not go unnoticed in E Company.
“Our sergeant used to kid us about how lucky he was to have two ‘movie stars’ in his platoon,” Rodriguez recalls. “He used to say the Marine Corps was fortunate to have two such great actors in the same unit. I know Ray Gagnon really looked like Power. We used to laugh about it.”
But 34 years ago last spring Rene Gagnon was more than just another combat veteran, an ex-textile mill worker, a movie star look-alike who was drafted in mid-war. He was a vital, critical link to American history. He identified the flag-raisers.
And he did because he himself was the first to be identified as one of that historic half-dozen.
YOU DON’T stop a war to get identification for pictures.
Associated Press Photographer Joe Rosenthal knew that when he snapped his famous photograph atop Mount Surbachi. Rosenthal had taken 17 other action pictures on the mountain that morning before finally clicking off the one which would place his name among the immortals in world photography.
Joe Rodriguez remembers Rosenthal scrambling up the mountain, lugging his camera, chasing after Company E.
“I remember he took a lot of pictures. He had one of those old ‘box’ cameras, the kind with the flash on the side,” Rodriguez recalls. “After he took some of all of us he asked for five or six guys to get together and lower the flag and then put it up again. He had his camera on an angle. I think it was his last piece of film and for a second the camera jammed. He hit it and the thing came loose and he took the picture. He had no idea what he had taken. None of us did. We all thought it was just another picture.”
RODRIGUEZ maintains that the first flag to be put up on the summit of Mount Suribachi on the morning of Feb. 23, 1945, was a small one brought ashore by Sgt. Henry O. Hansen.
“He carried it inside his jacket. He wasn’t my sergeant but somehow I ended up with him when we got to the top. He pulled the flag out, got a couple of sticks and put it up. It was a small flag, but getting it up there was his idea,” Rordriguez says.
The Historical Division of the Marine Corps does not give Hansen credit for putting up the first flag on Iwo. It says only that Hansen and six other Marines were photographed putting up a 54-inch-by-28-inch Stars and Stripes which had been brought ashore by Lt. George G. Wells from the attack transport Missoula.
The “Wells” flag had been given to First Lt. Harold G. Schrier, executive officer of Company E, by Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson, the battalion commander, before Schrier led a 40-man combat patrol up the mountain, official Marine Corps records say. Col. Johnson told Schrier to have the flag raised on the mountain if the objective was reached.
The “Rosenthal” flag, measuring 96-by-56 inches, was retrieved from LST 779 which had been beached near the base of Suribachi. It was carried to the top of the mountain by four of the marines who eventually were immortalized by Rosenthal’s picture, the Marine Corps says. Those four were Sgt. Michael Strank, a career Marine whose life and death were portrayed later in a movie starring John Wayne, Cpl. Harold Block, Pfc. Franklin R. Sousley and Pfc. Ira H. Hayes.
The Historical Division of the Marine Corps gives this version of the flag-raising:
“WHEN the men arrived at the top, Lt. Schrier decided that the new flag should be raised as the original one was lowered. Sgt. Strank and the others fastened the larger colors to a second pipe and then tried to set the makeshift staff in the rugged ground. Since the four men appeared to be having difficulty getting the pipe firmly planted, two onlookers, Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John H. Bradley and Pfc. Rene A. Gagnon, came to their aid. All six were struggling to raise the flag when Rosenthal snapped a picture.”
When the significance of the Rosenthal picture was realized, the government began efforts to identify and return the Marines in the flag-raising to the states. For three of the six the call came too late.
They died in the American effort to drive thousands of Japanese Royal Marines from the caves and caverns in the northern sector of Iwo Jima.
Gagnon, known to be a member of the flag-raising group, was returned to Washington on April 7, 1945, and with the use of an enlargement of the Rosenthal picture identified Sgt. Strank, Pfc. Sousley and Pharmacist’s Mate John C. Bradley as being in the group.
Gagnon also mistakenly identified Sgt. Henry Hansen, the Marine Rodriguez says raised the “first” flag atop Suribachi, as one of the six. Later, he realized that the man he named as Hanson actually was Cpl. Block and the correction was made. Ironically, Hanson was killed several days after the flag-raising by a sniper. The fatal wound was received while Hanson was being treated for other wounds by Pharmacist’s Mate Bradley.
MARINE CORPS historians say at first Gagnon refused to give the name of the sixth flag raiser. They said Gagnon insisted that he had promised to keep the man’s name a secret. Finally he admitted the Marine was Pfc. Ira H. Hayes, the Pima Indian from Arizona. Hayes’ later verified that the man Gagnon had identified as Sgt. Hanson was in fact Cpl. Block.
Bradley, himself wounded on March 12, was evacuated with Hayes to the states and participated with Gagnon and Bradley in a nationwide war bond selling tour.
With Gagnon dead, John Bradley is now the lone survivor of the Iwo Jima flag-raising. Still living in his home town of Antigo, in north central Wisconsin, Bradley has never given a newspaper interview, Gene Legro, managing editor of the Antigo Journal, says.
“He just never talks about it,” Legro says. “His son has told us he has mentioned Iwo Jima only once that he knows of. He just won’t talk of it.”
Bradley had completed an apprenticeship to a funeral director shortly before he entered the U.S. Navy. He returned to that profession after discharge from the Marines and operates a funeral home in Antigo now.
Of the six in the flag picture, Rodriguez remembers Ira Hayes and Sgt. Strank the best.
“Ira was a good friend. I was the only Mexican-American and he was the only Indian in the outfit. That didn’t bother me because I’d never experienced the prejudice back home that he did and an Indian. I remember he called me ‘Chili Bean” and he said to me once: ‘What are you doing in this outfit? Why’d you come? Are you like the rest, licking the white man’s boots?’ I thought ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ But the more I got to know Ira the more I knew. He was a bitter man. And the treatment his people had received had made him that way,” Rodriguez says.
HAYES TOLD the Ann Arbor man of the Pima Indian poverty on the Gila River Indian Reservation south of Phoenix.
“He told me once he’d joined the service because there never was enough to eat at home. He said, “It was join or starve to death.’ He said they used to have droughts around Sacaton in southwest Arizona. ‘You know we had to by water, 50 gallons for five cents, at the same time the white men were building big golf courses around Phoeniz, spraying water for the grass, building swimming pools. That’s what it was like,’ he told me.” Hayes also told Rodriguez how Indian tribes which had fought the white man in the 1800s scorned the Pimas.
“We’re the only Indians who never fought. We weren’t fighters,’ he used to tell me. One time we had five Apache Indians attached to our unit. They used them for communications, to prevent the Japs from intercepting our radio messages, to confuse the enemy with Apache language. These Apaches took things away from Ira. He didn’t do anything about it. He said because the Apaches had always fought the white man they hated the Pimas. He said his grandfather used to tell him that Apaches used to come to their territory and take anything they wanted. He said the Pimas were outcasts. He was a troubled man.” Rodriguez recalls.
The Ira Hayes story was told several years ago in a television movie with Lee Marvin taking the part of Hayes. Rodriguez says the depiction was correct. Hayes became an alcoholic after returning from World War II and died with his face in a mud puddle near his Arizona home in 1955. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“I don’t think they did anything for Ira after the war. They’d offer him drinks, thinking they were doing him a favor,” Rodriguez says.
SGT. STRANK was to Rodriguez, the model Marine Corps sergeant.
“He was all Marine, all man. But he understood people too, especially the young kids in our outfit. I remember we had a really young guy in our unit who was scared he was going to run when we got into combat. He was afraid he was going to be a coward. You know, that really goes through you, wondering what you’re going to do. You never know till you’re in it. But this kid really worried about it. And he began to show it. A couple of weeks before we left Hilo (Hawaiian Islands) for Iwo he told somebody he was going to shoot himself. Strank heard about it and he went over to talk to the kid. He asked him where he was from even though he already knew and when the young guy said ‘Dallas’, why Strank right away said, ‘Well, so am I’. Of course he wasn’t. Strank was such a liar. We knew he was from Pennsylvania. Anyway, he kept talking to the kid about Dallas, the “Big D” and asking if this theater was still there and about this street and that. He had the young guy really believing that he was from Dallas too.”
When asked how the young Marine turned out in the invasion, Rodriguez said: “Oh, he got killed. But he never turned. He never ran away.”
Strank was 26 when he was killed in action on Iwo Jima. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1939 and in 1943 and 1944 as a Marine Raider took part in the invasion of the Russell Islands and Bouganville. Rodriguez said Strank was a “born leader.”
SGT. STRANK met death almost at the moment he was talking to Rodriguez about moving the platoon out of a crater being shaken by enemy mortars and artillery. It was the morning of March 1, 1945, six days after the Rosenthal picture.
Company E, its 148-man complement decimated by the initial Indian landing on Iwo, had been brought almost to full strength with more than 100 replacements. The company had been moved from Mount Surbachi to the northern end of the island where Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had positioned most of his troops in caves and caverns for a final stand. Rodriguez tells of the final moments of the life of Sgt. Strank and his comrades in Company E:
“We got caught, pinned down. We couldn’t tell where the lines were. There really were no lines. We wanted to get back to our lines. We were in the center of this crater, about 10 of us. We thought the enemy was ahead of us. We had two outpost men out form the crater, watching. Just when Sgt. Strank was telling me about moving out a shell hit directly in the crater. The concussion was so great it killed our outpost men. And it killed eight men in the crater. Sgt. Strank landed on top of me. It was morning when we got hit but I didn’t come around until afternoon. I pushed Strank off of me. He was dead. It looked like someone had taken a shotgun and just blasted him. There was only one guy in the hole who was alive. His name was Elliott but we always called him ‘Hips’ because he was so tall. He was crying, God he was crying. And screaming. I crawled over to him and rolled him over but I couldn’t see where he was hurt. Then I saw a small spot of blood in the small of his back. But I couldn’t do much for him. I was hurt myself. My legs had been hit and my chin. I remember being disgusted with ‘Hips’ for crying. I told him he shouldn’t be crying. Then the medics came and put me on a jeep. Later I saw ‘Hips’ in a hospital and I found out he was paralyzed from the waist down. I really felt bad. I never stopped apologizing to him.”
The shell which killed Sgt. Strank and eight in his command send Joe Rodriguez out of the war, away from the Pacific. He spent months in naval hospitals, the shrapnel still in his legs.
WHEN HE was discharged he came back to Ann Arbor, back to home and family and peace. He became a construction worker and a high school wrestling coach and a counselor of young people.
Now there is left only John Bradley, “Doc” of Company E, who dashed under fire to the crying wounded, bound up the bullet tears, spoke softly to the dying kids there on the ashen beach of Iwo Jima. Only “Doc” is left of the six who hoisted the flag into place atop a shell-scarred mountain and entered history with the click of a photographer’s shutter so many wars ago.
A soldier’s memory
Rodriguez: ‘I guess everybody’s scared.’
Joe Rodriguez remembers the battle of Iwo Jima:
“I remember just after we hit the beach at Iwo we were really pinned down by Jap fire. We were in the second wave and the Japs let the first wave land without much fire but when we landed they opened up on both of us. They were up on terraces and shooting right down on us. Sgt. Michael Strank told me, ‘Joe, we can’t stay here. The whole platoon’ll be killed. They’re just dropping right on us. We’ve got to move up.’ Well, nobody really wanted to move. I thought I was safe in this big crater. But Sgt. Strank said, ‘Joe, they’re going to find us with those mortars. We’ve got to run out of here. We’ve got to get these guys out of here.’ He told me he’d run first, about 50 yards to a ditch. ‘When I get there, I’ll signal and then you come. Then everybody else come running, one by one.’ He ran to the ditch and then signaled me to come on. At first I kind of ducked my head, acting like I didn’t see him. But then I’m yellow. And the guys in the platoon were so young, I couldn’t let them know I was scared. I said to the kid behind me, ‘I’m moving up with the sergeant. When I get there, I’ll signal, then you come. Then the guy next to you, right down the line.’ Well I ran to the ditch and Sgt. Strank looked at me and said, “What took you so long? What was the matter?” I didn’t say anything. But the next minute a guy from the platoon was running into the ditch. Then another. Then another. Pretty soon they were all with us. That nights when we were dug in one of the young guys came up and said, ‘Joe, we really think you’re brave. If you hadn’t run to that ditch, we’d have all stayed right there.’ Boy, I wanted so badly to tell him just how scared I was. But that’s the whole thing, the secret. Everybody thinks of how they think about you. You don’t want to look bad in the eyes of your buddies. You don’t want them to know you’re scared. I guess everybody’s scared. Maybe that’s what keeps you motivated. That and the training.”
William B. Treml
World War II
U.S. Marine Corps
Battle of Iwo Jima
Arlington National Cemetery
Ann Arbor News
Gov. William G. Milliken
Rene Arthur Gagnon
John H. Bradley
Ira H. Hayes
Henry O. Hansen
Harold G. Schrier
George G. Wells
Franklin R. Sousley
Chandler W. Johnson